In October I said goodbye to the friends and the church that had become family in DC and headed west to be closer to my mom, my in-laws, and sunshine. After serving on staff at National Community Church for over six years I decided to take some time to write about the things I had learned during my time in DC.
By the time I got to California, Rachel, my wife, had already been there for three months. She began searching for a church to attend before I arrived and had landed at a place called Eastside Christian Church. She received a mailer from the church, and, seeing that it was less than five minutes away from our apartment, decided to check it out.
Having tried a handful of churches that weren’t quite the right fit, she was struck by how Eastside had a rare combination of friendliness and excellence.
The second weekend that I visited Eastside, there was a dinner following the Saturday night service. They wanted to feed everyone barbecue and cast vision for the church, much of which revolved around the plan to start more Eastside locations.
While we were waiting in line for food, Rachel heard a familiar voice behind us. Andie had hosted Rachel’s table at First Step with Gene, an event Eastside does for guests. They hadn’t kept in touch since then, but Andie was pretty much the only person at church who Rachel knew.
We started talking, and Andie asked what I did for a living. At this point I was not advertising the fact that I had been a pastor. In fact, I was hiding it. I was looking to be a normal church member while I pursued writing. So I just told her that I was an author. And naturally, she asked what type of writing I did.
I decided it’s probably not good to lie about what you do for a living, especially when what you do is write about how to bring people together in community to help them become more like Jesus, so I told her that I used to be a small groups pastor at our church in DC and that I wrote about small groups.
“Oh, we’re looking for some help with our small groups.”
It turns out Andie is one of the elders at Eastside. Exactly what I was trying to avoid.
I kinda stumbled through a reply that went something like, “Uh, um, I really am just pursuing writing right now."
A couple of months go by, and Rachel and I are joining Andie and her husband Keith for lunch after church. When we walk up she introduces us to Greg and Dave who are both on staff on the Build Community team at Eastside, which is the team responsible for groups, among other things.
Later that week I have lunch with Greg and Dave where I learn that they’re moving to a small group model called “free market” and want to hire someone to run groups, although they haven't yet advertised the position or begun a candidate search.
My wife gets a mailer for a church five minutes away from our apartment and starts attending. The second weekend I’m there they have a dinner. Of the 5000 people who attend Eastside, the one person my wife knows ends up in line behind us. She just happens to be an elder who introduces us to two members of the team responsible for small groups who tell me that they’re looking to hire someone to run groups. It also just so happens that the church model (multi-site) and the small group model (free market) are the same church model and group model we used at NCC.
I’m not someone who sees the hand of God in every coincidence or random encounter, but I find it hard to chalk up that series of events to chance.
After a number of further conversations and interviews, it truly seems that this is something God has been orchestrating, and so I start my new role as the Director of Build Community at Eastside Christian Church this Saturday.
There are a lot of words to describe how I’m feeling: humbled, honored, a bit nervous. But I think most of all I’m excited to be joining a team that has both a passion and a plan to transform homes, communities, and the world for Jesus.
What do I believe is impossible to do in my field, but if it could be done would fundamentally change my business?
Andy Stanley posed that question during a podcast entitled Bold Leadership. As I was listening, the answer struck me:
Reaching 100% participation in small groups without the lead pastor being in a group.
It’s the white whale of small group ministry: having as many or more people attending small groups than attend weekend church services, and conventional wisdom says that the single most important factor in making this a reality is involvement of the lead pastor.
It makes sense. The pastor is the most influential person in the organization. They have 30 minutes of platform time every week. They make hiring and firing decisions. They usually have a high level of influence over the budget. And perhaps most importantly, people in the church value the input of the lead pastor over any other staff member. The reality is that even if a lead pastor is supportive of small groups, if he or she isn’t in one, it signals to the congregation that while groups may be a good thing, they aren’t an essential thing.
But what if it were possible? What if there were a way to lead a small group ministry such that it was reaching as many or even more people than the weekend services?
This would be revolutionary because there are churches where the lead pastor just isn't going to join a small group. There may be totally valid reasons for this, but the fact is that it's going to limit the scope of that church's small group ministry. But what if it didn't have to?
It was nearly six years ago that I made the decision to quit my job on Capitol Hill to take an unpaid internship as a Protege at National Community Church.
It was a decision that radically altered the trajectory of my life.
If you are interested in vocational ministry or just want to spend a year growing as a leader and follower of Christ, I'd encourage you to check out the Protege Program. It's not just an internship, it's a year long leadership and character development program in which you are paired with a mentor from your chosen department.
I'd especially recommend checking out the Discipleship Team... but then, I'm biased.
Energetic, passionate, committed, relentless: these are just a few of the words that describe Ben Reed.
Ben is the small groups pastor at Long Hollow Baptist Church, a great faith community just outside of Nashville, where he is rethinking and restructuring group life. Before that he served as the groups pastor and then executive pastor for a church plant that grew to over 2000 in weekly attendance.
But more important to me than his impressive resume is that I have the privilege of calling Ben a friend, and I am excited to introduce you to his first book, Starting Small: The Ultimate Small Group Blueprint.
So Ben, for as long as I've known you, you've been a prolific blogger. What made you decide to write a book?
I felt like I had more to say than a series of blog posts could handle. I love blogging, but I was ready to be able to carry a sustained idea a little longer than a blog can.
The value of blogs is that they’re short and to-the-point. My book, though it’s intentionally short (70 pages), is a lot longer than you’d ever want to read on a blog post.
I love writing, and I really make sense of the world as I flesh my thoughts out that way. So the book was as helpful for me as it ever will be for anyone else.
You write about how your love of small group ministry comes out of your own experience in a group and the impact the group had on your life. As I read it, Starting Small is about systematizing that type of experience so that others can have it too. Other than picking up a copy of Starting Small, what advice would you have for folks who are just beginning to lead a small group ministry?
Grab the best leaders you know. Not necessarily the most spiritual, the ones who have been following Jesus the longest, or the ones that know the most Bible, but the best leaders. The ones that people want to follow.
And ask them to journey through life with you in your small group. Invest in them. Help them grow. Let them experience authentic community, see the beauty and power in it, then deploy them to lead as you coach them through the process.
That's good. Find the people with the most leadership capacity, and walk with them until they're spiritually ready... sounds kinda like making disciples.
In Chapter 2 you point out that few of us can name 10 sermons that impacted our lives but that we can almost certainly name 10 people who have invested in us. How can we help our group leaders become not just meeting facilitators but people who are making a significant investment in the lives of the people in their groups?
Help them see that the value of groups is not found in completing a curriculum, checking a box that says you “met,” or in coming to all of the right trainings.
The value of a small group is in people taking steps of faith together.
And when you see groups doing that, celebrate it!
Because what’s celebrated is what’s replicated. So when you “catch” someone doing the right thing, let them, and everyone else, know it.
I love that. Let me say that again in case anyone missed it.
Groups are about people taking steps of faith together, not completing the curriculum, and if you want more people to take steps of faith together, celebrate when it happens.
Okay, I should probably step down off my soapbox now.
In Chapter 3 you talk about the importance of a senior pastor in group life. If he or she is bought in, the congregation will notice. And if he or she isn't, the congregation will notice. What advice would you give to small group directors/pastors at churches where the senior pastor isn't fully invested in small groups?
Find a new church.
No, seriously, your church needs you. Don’t give up! Invite your pastor to join your group. And don’t put the pressure of leadership on them, or expectation that they’d wear their pastor hat every week. Just let them be themselves. Let them be a follower of Jesus on a journey, just like everyone else in the group.
As they see lives changing around them in the group, and as God changes their own life too, their sermon illustrations will change from being generic “I’ve heard a story of a guy that…” to, “In my small group this week…” That’s a powerful shift.
It is. Nothing communicates the value of group life like stories or even just mentions of group life. It's invaluable.
Speaking of sermons and church services, one of my favorite parts of Starting Small is in Chapter 5 where you offer a critique of modern worship services as hyper-individualistic. If you were designing a church service from the ground up, what would you do differently?
I would strategically use Sunday mornings as an on-ramp for community. Link the small group questions to the sermon. Tell the congregation that you realize all questions, concerns, and hang-ups can’t be answered here. And tell people constantly that what’s best for them is not that they’d just sit there and soak in, but that they (no matter where they are on their spiritual journey) can be used by God in huge ways to impact the people God’s brought into their lives.
Ben, thanks for spending a few minutes with us. If you haven't gotten a copy of Starting Small yet, be sure to order one. It would make a great gift for the small group lover in your life.
While you're at it, be sure to keep up with Ben on his blog, Life and Theology, as well as on Twitter.
People are messy.
You're a mess. I'm a mess.
Everybody's a mess.
A small percentage of people have cleaned up their mess pretty well. Most have cleaned up all the visible mess but have mold growing in the walls. A few folks' mess is on display for all to see.
In other words. People are broken. There are things deep inside that cause stress, breed resentment, elicit fear, that–simply put–hurt.
Now, take two or three or ten messy people and put them together...
You've got a mess on your hands. Mess from wrongdoing, mess from personality differences, mess from past hurts...
But you've also got opportunity for growth, healing, deep friendship, and real love.
That's what Heather Zempel-Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church-writes about in Community is Messy. If you're going to develop real relationships, let people into your life to know you and dive into their lives and know them, it's not going to be a clean enterprise.
Heather dives head first into the mess, drawing on 10+ years of experience on staff at NCC, a masters in biological engineering, and many attempts at intentionally creating community among small groups of people. I cannot recommend her book to you highly enough.
Now for a caveat and a counter to it. Heather is my boss on NCC's Discipleship Team, so I'm sure my recommendation is biased. But the fact that I work for Heather also means that I know she's the real deal. She has opened her life–allowing others into her mess–and has willinglydove into the mess of the lives of others... including myself.
Last night my small group was at my house until nearly 11 PM, and my co-leader didn't leave until 11:40. We had wrapped up the group around 9:00, but as people sat around the circle chatting, two of the group members began to talk about a play they had seen over the weekend, "A Bright New Boise." As they related the story, it paints a picture of Evangelical Christians as people who disengage from the world because they're really only concerned about getting to Heaven.
This began a conversation about how well (or not) this stereotype represents the American Church, role of faith and works, the Church's response to homosexuality, the need to serve the poor, the tendency for a purely social gospel to replace the Gospel, the need to love others, whether ongoing sin will cause someone who believes in Jesus to go to hell, the problems with faith as our parents practiced it, the blind spots of our generation of Christians, and the perception of the Church by those who are not a part of it.
As I sat there listening and participating, there was a moment when I remembered and rediscovered why I do what I do, why I lead small groups, why I help others organize and lead small groups. I help create environments where conversations like this can happen. I help create environments where people can wrestle with their faith, where they can figure out what it means to live out their faith, where they can disagree and still walk away as friends.
It was a rich conversation. It was the sort of conversation that is worth its weight in gold. The feeling is much the same feeling as giving your all on the soccer field or the basketball court with a team of friends. It was challenging, draining, and invigorating all at the same time.
It was discipleship. It was community. It was theology.
It was life-giving.
The challenge now is to make sure it translates into life-change.
Photo by ElvertBarnes
It's a simple question really, although one that might be difficult to answer: What are you about? What defines you? What is unique about you? What makes you who you are?
Jamie asked this question of herself on her blog, which got me thinking about what I'm about.
I'm about Jesus, and I'm about helping others follow him.
I'm about my wife.
I'm about the Church and more specifically my church.
I'm about community.
I'm about cities. I live in DC, and my last three trips have been to Seattle, New York City, and Addis Ababa.
I'm about food. I especially love Chicago pizza, hot dogs and beef sandwiches, and if you grill meat I'll like it.
I'm about leadership, learning to lead myself and others well.
I'm about too much TV.
I'm about receiving grace and trying to get better at giving it.
I'm about reading and writing.
I'm about social media.
I'm about driving.
I'm about generosity.
I'm about being stressed and agitated but trying to change that.
I'm about my friends.
I'm about Sabbath.
I'm about poker.
I'm about competition and winning.
I'm about thinking and challenging and stretching my mind (and yours).
I'm about serving the vulnerable, because that's what Jesus is about.
I'm about integrity.
I'm trying to be about joy and intentionality.
I'm about theology.
I'm becoming about artistic expression and travel.
I used to be about politics.
I'm about exercise (sometimes).
What are you about? Leave a comment below or better yet, write your own post and link back to mine. I'll be sure to swing by your blog and check it out.
Photo by Flickr User gfpeck
Over the past couple of years one of the things that I've most appreciated about going to conferences is getting the opportunity to meet other folks who work with small groups.
To that end I'm planning a meetup for small group pastors during Catalyst 2011. I figure, with 13k church leaders present, there have to be some other groups folks around, right?
We'll be grabbing lunch on Thursday, October 6 on the grounds of the Gwinnett Center. We'll just get Chik-fil-a or whatever for lunch and meetup just to the right of the main entrance.
You can RSVP by dropping a comment below or (preferably) visiting the event page.
Photo by Kevin Shorter
I ran across this thought provoking video from Kelli and Niki Tshibaka on a missionary friend’s blog.
It got me asking…
What am I about?
What is my ministry about?
What is my church about?
Am I—are we—making disciples or just putting on programs?
How much time should I be putting into creating a program, a framework through which people can be discipled, versus just directly discipling people myself?
I say to myself that the small groups fair we put on this weekend helps connect people with others in relationships where discipleship can occur, but maybe if I just spent time discipling people rather than organizing an event, they would reach out to others and the people at my church wouldn’t need help getting connected.
Or maybe an event like that is exactly how people do wind up getting discipled.
What is the church? And what is it about? And how are we to best fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples?
A couple of weeks ago NCC had its summer leadership summit. We typically provide leadership training, and this summer Heather, our Discipleship Pastor, decided to do a series of TED-style talks around the theme “Leaders must…”
I spoke on living in rhythm.
The other topics/speakers were: